Monday, January 2, 2017
"Spring picks"/ "A swimmer's dreams go adrift"
Sept. 10, 2016 Spring picks: This was in the National Post on Mar. 12, 2011:
The book I’m most looking forward to this spring is Jessica Westhead’s story collection And Also Sharks, a great title for her style of play, which can explore the brutal obstacles the world throws up in the way of nice, reasonable people. Like a patient photographer, she catches polite, anxious urbanites in hot, mumbled flashes of passion before they have a chance to notice, blush and recede into the weeds. In her vision of city life, clos- ing a door can be a breathtakingly heroic act, because, after all, that man out there might not be a shark at all, he might be a very nice person, despite all the evidence, and if you’re wrong and you’ve done something so bold and rude as to close the door on him, you might embarrass yourself, and that could really suck for you.
❚ Sean Dixon is the author of the forthcoming novel The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn. Weekend Post
The spring release I’m most hungry for is also a book the gives me the howling fantods: David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King. Hungry for, because it’s new work by DFW, who changed the way many of us thought fiction could and should be written. Anxious because I haven’t really stopped mourning Wallace since his 2008 death by suicide and the book will be a big, fat reminder of what we’ve lost. Hungry for, because the novel, a mock memoir, promises to excavate intense boredom (set among accountants in an IRS centre in Peoria, Ill.) without being boring. Anxious (queasy?) because, is this what DFW wanted, this panting of acolytes over the publication of an unfinished book? But hungry for, yes, hungry.
❚ Zsuzsi Gartner’s new short-story collection is called Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Weekend Post
Sept. 12, 2016 Young adult books: Here are a few reviews by Lauren Bride in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 21, 2015:
No Parking at the End Times
By Bryan Bliss, Greenwillow, 272 pages, $21.99
Everyone knows that families can sometimes be tough to deal with, and Abigail’s family is no different. Her parents have made many mistakes, one of them being when Abigail’s father, in an act inspired by his faith, moves their entire family across the country to San Francisco in order to be near Brother John, a quasi cult leader who’s been preaching that the apocalypse is imminent, and remains stubbornly unswayed when the world doesn’t end. One person who doesn’t believe in Brother John’s teachings is Abigail’s twin brother, who begins sneaking out at night to hang with a group of homeless kids, leaving Abigail torn between two sides of her family. No Parking at the End Times is an excellent, well-written story of faith and families, fanaticism and the lives of street youth. The novel is heavy reading, but captures the moment in all young people’s lives – well, at least some – when they realize their parents’ judgment might not be perfect.
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces
By Isabel Quintero, Cinco Puntos Press, 208 pages, $24.50
Isabel Quintero’s debut novel came out in October, but it deserves attention. Gabi Hernandez keeps a journal, in which she details the minutiae of her life during her final year of high school. She writes about poetry, pregnancies, the food she wants to eat and deeply-revealing stories about her family, which includes her meth-addicted father and her mother, who constantly bugs her about her weight and gives terrible advice. She has enough to worry about as it is, including getting into college, her algebra grades and fitting in both at school and at home. Gabi is funny and smart, with a self-deprecating wit that makes her seem realer than most literary characters. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is a timely, important and totally charming novel, and is an especially good choice for readers looking for a bright, independent, female narrator.
Playlist for the Dead
By Michelle Falkoff, HarperTeen, 288 pages, $21.99
The titular Playlist for the Dead happens to be an actual playlist; one song per chapter. If readers follow along as they read, song by song, a warning: It may very well prove to be a totally debilitating experience. It is, however, well worth the pains. Adding songs to a narrative – a reliable tactic employed in film, and sometimes in books, too – deepens the experience. In the case of Michelle Falkoff’s debut novel, the protagonist, Sam, listens to songs in order to try and understand his best friend Hayden’s unexpected death. The novel tackles the absurdity of grief, and the extra difficulty that comes when processing it while still young. Falkoff is a real dab hand when it comes to breaking apart emotion and the novel might just break your heart. This one is recommended for everyone with a pulse.
"A swimmer's dreams go adrift": I cut out this article by Monique Polak in the Edmonton Journal on Apr. 11, 2014:
“He was the strongest, the fastest, the best.”
These words are repeated like a mantra in Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel Barracuda. Barracuda is the nickname the other boys at a posh Australian private school give Danny Kelly. Danny’s working-class parents could never afford to send him to the school. He’s there on scholarship because of his swimming — and his single-minded desire to come in first.
Tsiolkas lives in Melbourne, Australia. This is his fifth novel; his fourth, The Slap, won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was longlisted for the 2010 Booker. Barracuda is a novel about what can happen to us when our dreams fail to come true and when it feels as if there is nothing left to hope for. Though this novel has its flaws — it lacks subtlety, occasionally teetering on the brink of melodrama — Barracuda still makes for an enthralling read.
For most of this novel, Danny is difficult to like. When he’s winning, he’s cocky and self-absorbed, unappreciative of the sacrifices his family makes to accommodate his swimming. When he loses, he’s even worse, descending into a rage that will earn him another nickname at school: Psycho Kelly.
The narration shifts from first to third person, and from the present — Danny is 30 and has served prison time for a violent crime — to the past, when he was a teenage competitive swimmer. These shifts allow Tsiolkas to explore the complex theme of identity and how our pasts remain an intrinsic part of who we are.
From the moment he turns up at private school, Danny is aware he does not belong: “The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs.” When he is invited to the other boys’ homes, he feels ashamed of his family’s humble circumstances.
Danny is also confused about his sexuality, unable to make sense of his attraction to a classmate — and to the classmate’s elegant older sister. It’s only in the water that Danny finds some peace: “then it came, the sense that he was no longer conscious of the individual parts of his body ... the stillness came, and he was the water.”
But when Danny stops winning, his fragile sense of self implodes and he gives up swimming altogether. And then, to distinguish himself at school and to prevent the other boys from ridiculing or pitying him, Danny becomes the worst kind of bully, terrorizing the younger boys.
It isn’t until late in the book that the crime that landed Danny in prison is revealed. But it is in prison that Danny begins to come to terms with who he is and who he can still become. It’s also in the prison library that Danny discovers another escape that will be almost as good as swimming: reading.
My opinion: I'm going to put this in my inspirational quotes.
Tsiolkas spins a good story, but Barracuda could be more subtle. The references to identity feel heavy-handed, and several scenes, including one where Danny catches the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics on TV, would be more effective if they were toned down.
After a series of dead-end jobs, Danny finds work as an aide to men who have had severe brain damage. Just as these men need to learn to speak and move again, Danny, too, must find a way to start over. He begins to understand there is life after defeat, “that everything could be relearned … it could be taught and it could be learned, how to navigate the world again.”
My opinion: I'm going to put this in my inspirational quotes.